Sugar Skulls are a traditional folk art from Southern Mexico used to celebrate Day of the Dead. Mounds of colorful sugar skulls are sold by Indian vendors in open air village markets during the week preceding the holiday. Spirits of the dead are welcomed back to their homes with beautifully decorated altars made by their loved ones. Sugar skulls, marigolds, candles, incense and special foods adorn home altars.
Families take the flowers and sugar skulls to the cemetery to decorate the tombs on November 2. Sugar skulls are colorfully decorated with icing, pieces of bright foil, colored sugars and usually bear the name of the deceased loved one being honored. They are easy to make by children and adults, and if kept dry, they can last a year.
Make sugar skulls as part of your family tradition to remember your dear, departed loved ones.
Sugar Skull Recipe
CAUTION - Do not make sugar skulls on a rainy or high humidity day. They will not turn out.
Please don't forget the meringue powder! It's necessary for the sugar skull recipe.
Meringue Powder Brand - it matters!
Do not use meringue powder from hobby shops or cake supply shops as it's usually diluted and cut way too much for use with heavy granulated sugar. It's ok for icing, just it will not hold together sugar skulls! We get calls daily from teachers & folks who's sugar skulls are "sandy" and not sticking together and have a big mess on their hands and don't have enough time to get new meringue powder and redo the project. Start right from the beginning! After much testing, we recommend and sell CK Products meringue powder as it is very strong and one can count on it to create a good quality sugar skull. The only reliable meringue powder is from CK Products or the one sold in Sur La Table gourmet kitchen shops/ catalog.
Mix together well in large bowl 1 teaspoon Meringue Powder for every cup of granulated sugar used.
Step 1 - Mix dry ingredients well.
Step 2 - Sprinkle sugar mixture with 1 teaspoon water per cup of sugar used.
Variation - Colored Skulls
Most people prefer white skulls the first time they make them, but if you'd like colored sugar skulls, add paste food coloring TO THE WATER. For a 5 pound bag of sugar, use 1/4 cup meringue powder and 10 teaspoons of water. Yield 5 large skulls or 20 medium skulls or 100 mini skulls or any combination.
For a 10 pound bag of sugar, use 1/2 cup meringue powder and 7 Tablespoons water. Yield 10 large skulls or 40 medium skulls or 200 mini skulls or any combination.
Sugar Skull Yield Table
# of Skulls
5 pounds of sugar = approx.10 cups
10 pounds of sugar = 21 cups
3 teaspoons = 1 Tablespoon
Meringue Powder Conversion Table
4 oz. Jar
8 oz. Jar
1 lb. Bag
Meringue Powder is a MUST and cannot be omitted. It is difficult to find, but may be ordered in 4 oz, 8 oz or 1 pound packages on our sugar skull molds and supplies page. Meringue powder is what makes the sugar and the icing hard. Its main ingredient is powdered dry egg whites & starch, but it also includes vegetable gum, cream of tarter, calcium lactate, malic acid & sodium aluminum sulfate. It's totally edible.
Powdered Sugar for Royal Icing 1 pound box = 3
2 pound bag = 7 cups (do not sift Powdered Sugar)
Measurement: 3 teaspoons make a Tablespoon: 4 Tablespoons make 1/4 cup. But on this website, 7 Tablespoons (21 teaspoons) of Meringue Powder = 1/2 cup! (Please don't email me on this!) Sugar Skull making is not an exact science... we like easy measurements! Especially when measuring with kids.
Mix well with hands until every bit of sugar is moistened. If your fingerprints remain when you squeeze the sugar in your hand, it is ready to mold. (Right) It should feel like cool "beach sand."
If it doesn't hold together, mixture is too dry. (Left)
Remember, water sinks, so keep the sugar mixture mixed up frequently as you make your sugar skulls.
I am a huge fan of your site and the sugar skull supplies I purchased from you. Last year, I had a sugar skull decorating party and folks were just thrilled with the activity. So, thank you!
I put together a couple of videos on how to make sugar paste and how to mold sugar paste using some molds I purchased from your site. They are pretty straightforward and short -- I thought you might have a use for them on your site. If you like them, please feel free to use them. I reference mexicansugarskull.com in the videos because I so believe in the reliability of your products and service.
Jennifer Hasegawa from San Francisco
Pack sugar mixture FIRMLY into mold with special attention to chins & edges. Use a straight edge to scrape the back of the mold flat. Pack down some more until perfectly tight.
Place a stiff cardboard square (approx. 5" x 6") over mold and invert immediately. Lift mold off carefully. Throw any "mistakes" back into your bowl, stir up and try again. If mix is too dry, spritz with a water bottle.
If all the sugar mixture does not fall out of mold easily, it is too wet. Re-mix with a bit more sugar. Hand wash and dry your mold after every 5 skulls to avoid sticking. Most Sugar Skull makers will have a collection of molds to make the molding process more enjoyable.
All sizes of the molded sugar skulls need to air-dry on their card boards from 8 hours to overnight before they are ready to decorate. Medium and Mini skulls may be decorated after they are completely dry.
Large skulls require a few more steps. They are a 2-piece mold, and must be "scooped out" after they are partially dry; start checking them in 5-6 hours. When the skulls feel dry enough to handle, hold skulls carefully and hollow both the back and the front out with a spoon, leaving the skull wall 1/2" thick. Do not scoop out the neck area. It's very important to scoop out the larger skulls as they are so thick, they trap moisture - AND they are so heavy that they slide apart if not scooped.
Set the hollowed skulls upside down to continue drying until totally dry (approx. 12 hours). When completely dry, dust off and assemble the front and back of the skull with a 1/4" bead of thick royal icing, either applied with a knife or squeezed from an icing bag (one side only). Align points on the back of the skull with the sides of the neck, and press the two sides together until they are firmly connected. The icing will ooze out a little. Drag your finger over the seam to remove excess icing. Try to do this with just one pass - touching the skull too much will make the icing look bad. Drag your finger across the base of the neck crack to remove excess icing. Lay skull aside to dry. When seam is dry, about 2 hours minimum, it is ready to decorate. Sugar skull blanks may be made up to a year ahead of time awaiting decorating. Just store in "breathable" boxes like cardboard. Not plastic lidded boxes.
When assembling our Large Sugar Skull, if the two pieces of the skull are sliding around, your royal icing is too wet. Add a Tablespoon of powdered sugar to your icing, to stiffen it up a bit.
The sugar "scoopings" from Large Skulls will net about 50%. Sugar will be soft and moist and may be made into smaller skulls. This moist sugar may be stored in plastic tightly-topped box for a day or two. When you're ready to use sugar, give it the hand-squeeze test. If too dry, spritz with the water bottle until it holds together again. Tip: When assembling the Large skull, if the two pieces of the skull are sliding around, your royal icing is too wet. Add a Tablespoon of powdered sugar to your icing, to stiffen it up a bit.
Royal Icing Recipe
Mix 2/3 cup water, 1/2 cup meringue powder and 2 pounds powdered sugar with an electric/stand mixer until icing peaks (about 9 minutes!) Don't mix up more than 2 pounds at a time. Keep in a tightly covered container. DO NOT REFRIGERATE.
Royal icing is a cement type icing used for gingerbread house construction. It isn't very tasty, but it is strong, dries pretty and lasts. Use ONLY concentrated paste food colorings (NOT liquid food coloring from the grocery store!) Yes, we have 12 great colors on our sugar skull molds and supplies page.
Mix icing & paste colors in disposable cups. Use pastry bags and metal decorating tips if you are a pro or into cake decorating. Yes, we have great disposable pastry bags on the Molds and Supplies page!
Add 2-3 ounces of Royal Icing (no more than 1/4 full). Squeeze to decorate.
Calculate each 5 pounds of sugar skulls will need 2 pounds of powdered sugar Royal Icing. Most skull makers prefer 5-6 paste colors to decorate with and at least one pack of colored tin foil. Yes, we have tin foil in deep Purple, Magenta, Orange, Gold and Red, see sugar skull molds and supplies page.
The sugar "scoopings" from Large skulls will net about 50%. Sugar will be soft and moist and may be made into smaller skulls. This moist sugar may be stored in plastic tightly-topped box for a day or two. When you're ready to use sugar, give it the hand-squeeze test. If too dry, spritz with the water bottle until it holds together again.
All Skull Sizes
Have fun decorating your skulls with colored Royal Icing, sequins, feathers, beads, even earrings made from soda pop tops. Colored foil and icing are how Mexican sugar skulls are decorated. Foil is pasted down with icing, and is great for making crowns, crosses, hearts, shiny eyes or even pipes. Labels, wrappers, trinkets and shells can personalize a skull in memory of your dear, departed loved one. Be creative! Have fun! Kids down to kindergarten have fun decorating sugar skulls. If youngsters don't have the coordination to use a pastry bag, let them "Finger-paint" with the colorful icing.
Can you eat the Sugar Skulls???
There is nothing that will make you sick in Sugar Skulls except for the tin foil and other decorations. However, after all the handling that is done to make them, they aren't very clean! So, NO, you shouldn't eat a sugar skull. They are for decorative purposes only.
What's needed to make sugar skulls?
Sugar skull molds
colored tin foils, paper flowers, sequins, etc.
Corrugated cardboard squares, (one for each skull made)
6" x 6" for large skulls. 3" x 4" for medium and mini skulls
Large metal bowl
1 cup liquid measuring cup
1/4 cup dry measuring cup
Plastic spray bottle for water
Electric / stand mixer
16 oz. red Solo plastic cups
Butter knives or tongue depressors for mixing color into icing
Hose to wash down sugar encrusted children!
Sugar Skull Tradition
The traditional Mexican sugar skull is placed on the home altar or the tomb to honor a deceased loved one. It decorates the altar and make it a happy place for the spirit to visit. The name of the loved one is usually written on the skull with icing in the market by the sugar skull maker. You can customize your skulls with characteristics that you remember –– like a tin foil pipe for Grandpa Joe who smoked a pipe on the porch after dinner. Read more
Day of the Dead history....
Sugar Skull Decorating Party
If you're having a party, make up your skulls ahead of time. Prepare your icing and have it ready in bags... Cover your tables, lay out all the icings and decoration supplies, and play Mexican music! Margaritas??? No, not on our order page! Here are some party ideas!
Teacher tips ~ to make large batches of sugar skulls
What size skull should my class make?
We recommend the medium skull for K-3, if you want the students to actually make the skulls. 3rd grade to adult can make the 2 piece, Large skull. All ages prefer to decorate the large skull to the smaller sizes. We do not recommend the mini skull for classroom use. The advantage to the medium skull is that you can make it today, and it's dry and ready to decorate tomorrow. The large skull requires scooping, assembly and more time for drying... which generally takes one extra day. Large skulls require more sugar than mediums, so consider this if cost is an issue. The charts below will help you determine the product necessary for your classroom project.
Or, contact us with the details, and we'd will be happy to figure it up for you.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MAKE SUGAR SKULLS ON A HUMID DAY
That means rain, rain tomorrow, or rain yesterday. Sugar freaks out around damp air and the skulls won't dry right, stick right, or hold the icing on. Check your weather forecast.
If you were to have an unexpected rain storm in mid-project, the only tip I can give you is to pray. Then, see if you can "candle" the skulls in a low oven (150 degrees) for 15 minutes. Lay them on cookie sheets covered with thick newspapers to wick the moisture from the skulls. If they don't scorch, you may have fooled Mother Nature. Turn the oven off, and let the skulls sit in the oven over night.
Make a batch of Sugar Skulls at home before trying it in the classroom
Kindergarten - 3rd graders generally cannot mold the sugar skulls without lots of one-on-one assistance from teacher/parents/aides. But it can be done successfully! Teachers may prefer to make the skull blanks at home (a great job for a teacher's aide or overzealous parent volunteer!) Then bring them into the classroom ready to decorate. If dexterity is an issue with the icing bags, the project can be lots of fun to decorate the skulls with white glue, feathers, sequins, foil, beads, glitter and other "found" objects.
3rd grade and above are able to do the entire sugar skull project... but the molding can get messy. If weather permits, take tables out to the grass and mix and mold the sugar outside. Take a large lined trash can, and plenty of paper towels.
A bucket of water serves as a nice hand washing set up if a sink is not available in the classroom.
5 Always make a few extra sugar skulls to cover for any accidents that might occur.
If making the Royal Icing in the classroom, use a stand Kitchen Aid type mixer for safely. Remember to beat the icing a full 9 minutes. Icing for Assembly of the skulls needs to be a little thicker than the colored icing for the pastry bags...
For younger kids who might have trouble handling the "squeeze" of the icing bags, they can get beautiful, colorful results by finger-painting the icing on with their fingers. Cut tin foil can be patted down on tip of wet icing.
Make sugar skulls as part of a classroom altar. Focus on the Multicultural aspects of the holiday.
Have a contest for the best decorated Sugar Skull.
Left over supplies can be used for making gingerbread houses or just decorated cookies during the Christmas holiday. Excess colored tin foils can be used for origami making!
Fund-raisers: Students & clubs can make decorated sugar skulls and sell them for a Halloween fund-raiser. Great project for Latin / Spanish / Chicano clubs on campus.
Sugar skull making is a good activity to do in conjunction with stories or readings about the holiday. Compare the Mexican tradition and feelings about their deceased with the American tradition. Explore the differences between Halloween and Day of the Dead. Let students research Day of the Dead on the Internet.
Make a classroom altar, and have each student explain why they chose their contribution. Writing exercises in English as well as Spanish can explore students feelings of death, or their thoughts about tradition and ritual.
Don't forget the traditional Mexican music and food!
Classroom timing ~ how long does it take to make sugar skulls?
Medium and Mini skulls can be mixed and molded today, air-dried tonight, ready for icing tomorrow. 2 days, approx. 50 minute sessions for 1-2 skulls per student.
Large Skulls: Generally, take 3 days, unless creatively choreographed with after school helpers.
Mix the sugar and mold the skulls early in the morning. Late in the day, if the skulls have hardened a little, scoop them out. Save the scoopings to mold smaller skulls. If you get a late start, the skulls may be scooped out early the next morning. If it is warm or very dry, cover with plastic wrap so skulls dry out slower. Let the skull halves dry, upside down, overnight.
12-14 hours is usually OK between molding and scooping.
Large skulls are ready to be assembled. You need some white icing today for assembly. Let skulls dry until late in the day, or preferably, tomorrow. Have a small group mold medium and mini skulls from the saved "scoopings" from yesterday.
Today, the large skulls and the smaller skulls made from scoopings will be well dried, and ready for Icing. This is the real fun day ... Make it a Friday... and hose the kids down with a hose before they go home!
Tip- Let the skulls dry at least 1 day in the classroom before the student tries to take it home. Skulls will be very hard and set up in about 24 hours. If kept dry, skulls will look
good for up to 2 years or more!
Problems with concerned parents
Some schools have had parents who object to sugar skull making in the classroom for religious reasons. If you are in a school where you anticipate this type of problem, you may want to send home a Day of the Dead information sheet explaining the multicultural nature of the project. Assure the parents that this is not Satanic in any way. Invite the parents to the decoration day. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss this further.... I've heard just about everything!!!